Scandinavian and Nordic Perspectives

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The term "Scandinavia" traditionally includes the so-called Scandinavian countries Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Sometimes "Scandinavia" is given a broader definition that also covers the two remaining "Nordic" countries Finland and Iceland. The Scandinavian and Nordic countries are highly industrialized countries that have attempted to combine economic development with social welfare and democratic planning. Technological change has been considered in relation to competing values and interests, and ethics has played a role in this context.

The development of technology and ethics in Scandinavian and Nordic countries is characterised by some general trends that are very similar to Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland. Traditionally there has been a lot of scientific and cultural exchange among these countries and therefore one finds similar theoretical trends and movements among the Nordic countries. In particular can be mentioned positivistic and instrumental positions, Marxistic postions, positions from applied ethics traditions, critical environmental positions, and positions from postmodern continental philosophy.

Historical Background

The most famous case of science and technology ethics in the Nordic countries is the criticism of the Danish physicist and Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr (1885–1962). Bohr was paradoxically one of the physicians participating in the "Manhattan Project" during World War II that lead to the creation of the nuclear bomb. Bohr has said that it was only after that the United States dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that he fully became aware of the ethical responsibility of science (Rendtorff 2003). After he realized the deadly consequences of the use of nuclear bombs Bohr became an active opponent of nuclear arms and he sent several letters to the United Nations urging avoidance spread of nuclear mass destruction weapons and prevention of a nuclear war.

Although many Nordic scientists joined Bohr in his criticism of the military use of science and technology, the spirit of science and technology during the first part of the twentieth century was in general determined by a belief in the norms of science as universal and neutral creation of knowledge for the benefit of humankind.

During the 1960s there was a general belief in technology in the Scandinavian and Nordic countries. This period was characterized by a strong belief in the progress of science and technology. The spirit of research was instrumental, pragmatic and positivistic. In the 1970s, however, many critical movements emerged. In particular, many Marxist criticisms of technology were published. Marxist critiques treated technology as an aspect of the increasing oppression of people by a capitalist society. Marxist positions were influential because they contributed to the establishment of classes on society and technology in many universities.

The well known Finnish philosopher Georg Henrik von Wright published a path-breaking critical work in technology ethics in 1986, one of the most important contributions to technology ethics in Finland and perhaps also in the rest of the Nordic countries. In his book about science and rationality the basic argument is a deep scepticism towards the possibilities of humanity to deal with technological progress and its problems. A true humanism must be based on a deep understanding of human nature and the acceptance of the natural limits on human activities and the interventions of beings in their natural and cultural environment (von Wright 1986).

In Denmark there have also been many publications on the limits of growth. The theologian Ole Jensen (1976) wrote I Vækstens Vold (Submitted to growth) on that subject and the philosopher Villy Sørensen and colleagues (1978) proposed a discussion aimed at overcoming the Marxist opposition to the role of technology in society and proposing a new vision of a society in harmony with technology.

In addition to Marxist positions there emerged a strong ecological movement focusing on the negative environmental consequences of science and technology in an industrial society. Discussions of environmental ethics were extensive, and in Norway the deep ecology movement represented by the philosopher Arne Næss (1976) proposed a paradigm of the relationship between humankind and nature that became influential worldwide.

During the 1980s the Danish philosopher Peter Kemp attempted to integrate the humanities and technology. Drawing on the philosophies of Hans Jonas (1903–1993), Paul Ricoeur (b. 1913) and Emmanuel Levinas (1906–1995), he argued for a symbiotic relationship between the two cultures and an ethics of technology in The Irreplacable (1991), which was his second doctoral habilitation at the university of Göteborg.


During the 1990s the focus shifted from technology ethics to bioethics and medical ethics. In Norway a debate on principles resulted from discussions about the national biotechnology legislation that was enacted at the beginning of the decade. The Norwegian parliament invented the concept of "mixed ethics," a collection of deontological, utilitarian, and cultural approaches, as the basis for biotechnology legislation. Sweden discussed these matters in the framework of the Swedish Council for medical ethics, an advisory body to the Swedish government.

In Norway technology ethics and bioethics were integrated in the so-called Ethics Research program of the Norwegian Government, which opened opportunities for many doctoral candidates to start a carrier in technology ethics. That program also involved strengthening bioethics research. The professor of medical ethics Jan Helge Solbakk (1994) was influential in developing medical ethics in that country on the basis of the work of one of the founders of Norwegian medical ethics, Knud-Erik Tranøy (1992).

In Sweden utilitarian bioethics was defended by the consequentialist Torbjörn Tjansöe, who became a professor of philosophy in Stockholm. Tjansöe has radical views on bioethics and once was a dogmatic Marxist. A Kantian position in favor of human dignity has been defended by Matts Hannson (1991), who is the director of the Swedish ELSA program (Ethical, Legal, and Social Aspects of genetic technologies) based in Uppsala. In addition, there is an influential interdisciplinary research unit on bioethics and technology ethics at Linköping University, where the Danish professor Thomas Achen has worked on gene technology and law in Scandinavia (Achen 1997).

In Denmark discussions of bioethics emerged from debates in the Danish Council of Ethics, which was established in 1987. Two research programs that were sponsored by five Danish Research Councils in 1993 were especially important in the development of the bioethics research environment in that country.

The first program, Gran (Foundations and Applications of Bioethics) explored the foundations and applications of ethics and collaborated closely with the Danish Council of Ethics by arranging hearings about bioethics issues. Svend Andersen, a professor of theology at the University of Aarhus, who had been one of the first members of the Danish National Council of Ethics, directed this research project. The Danish philosopher and theologian Knud Ejler Løgstrup was the inspiration for Andersen's position on theoretical ethics. Andersen had also been responsible for an important report on research ethics for the ministry of research in 1994 (Andersen 1994, Rendtorff 2003). However, Andersen also collaborated with Peter Sandøe, a consequentialist who later worked on animal bioethics and in 1998 established a Center for Risk Assessment for Human and Animal Biotechnology based in the Royal Danish Vetenary School.

The second project, which was based in the Center for Ethics and Law at the University of Copenhagen, explored the relationship between biotechnology, ethics, and the law. It also collaborated with the Danish Council of Ethics in the organization of international conferences on bioethics and biolaw. Peter Kemp, a technology ethicist who in the 1980s had done work on medical ethics, became the director of the center, which published several works on bioethics and law. This project applied a phenomenological approach to the ethics of biotechnology (Rendtorff 1999). In addition, the Center for Ethics and Law was responsible for a European research project sponsored by the BIOMED-II program of the European Commission, Basic Ethical Principles in European Bioethcis and Biolaw, that led to the publication of a two-volume research report (Rendtorff and Kemp 2000). The report investigated the ideas of autonomy, dignity, integrity, and vulnerability as guiding ideas for future European bioethics and biolaw.

In Finland there has also been much public debate about different issues of bioethics: abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, inequalities in health, decline of the natural environment, overpopulation, and scarcity of medical resources. Like many European countries, Finland has established a national council of ethics to advise government about ethical issues in health care, science, and technology. Academic debates about bioethics in Finland has mostly been inspired by the Anglo-American approaches in the field. The discussions are characterized by confrontations between consequentialist and deontological and right-based approaches to applied ethics (Rendtorff and Kemp 2000).

Icelandic approaches to bioethics follow the same patterns of confrontation between principles and pragmaticism. Recent discussions have been focussed on the development of an Icelandic biotechnology industry. A thought-provoking case is the fact that the Icelandic government has allowed a privately-owned enterprise to make a bio-bank with blood samples and genetic information from the 280,000 citizens of Iceland (Rendtorff 2003). The Icelandic genetic patrimony is unique because of the small genetic variation within a homogenous population; therefore there might be opportunities to discover new knowledge about genetics. The firm "decode" collaborates with international biotechnology companies; they have procured a number of patents and other rights to the genetic samples that constitute a unique opportunity to do research in genetic basis of disease and possible improvement of medicines for treatment of genetic diseases. Critical voices in the public debate have argued that this common gene pool poses serious problems of data protection, privacy, and anonymity. Moreover, it is stated that the Icelandic government has been too quick in allowing extended commercialization of genetic information and private ownership of blood samples from human bodies. However, this debate about bio-banks and uses of genetic technologies represent features that seems to be fairly common among all the Nordic countries.

Technology Ethics

Parallel to the discussions in bioethics, a scholarly literature has evolved that is concerned with the relationship of technology and society. In this literature attempts are made to understand the interrelationships between technological change and social concerns. The concept of ethics also is important in this context, but it is not always used in the strict philosophical sense of the word.

The Scandinavian and Nordic countries all have a tradition of social planning. All three countries were industrialized at a relatively late stage and at a slow pace. This has allowed for peaceful processes of industrialization with attention paid to the welfare state and social welfare. As a consequence, labor unions, among other groups, have played a crucial role in social development and various traditions of democracy and welfare planning have evolved that have a strong influence on Scandinavian societies.

This may explain why several issues in ethics, social policy, and technology have been formulated in a relatively constructive and formative rather than reactive way. In the initial stages two scholarly traditions seemed important: working life science and a critique of technology.

WORKING LIFE SCIENCE. This tradition began in the late 1960s. In 1971 the Norwegian Iron and Metal Workers' Union initiated an important project with Kresten Nygaard that dealt with planning methods for the trade unions (Fuglsang 1993). The aim of the project was to strengthen the trade unions' influence on new computer technologies. In 1975 the Swedish National Federation of Labour Unions (LO) sponsored a similar project, DEMOS, which dealt with democratic control and planning in working life. The aim of the project was to support workers' influence on the new technology. In Denmark Project DUE, which dealt with democracy, development, and data processing, was initiated. Some of these projects were inspired in part by Harry Braverman's work on the degrading and controlling aspects of work (Braverman 1976), but their aim clearly went beyond Braverman's objectives. They were not limited to studying the negative consequences of technology but instead were intended to formulate an approach to a constructive development of technology.

One of the computer scientists who took part in those discussions, Pelle Ehn, published a book explaining these aims (Ehn 1988). In that book the Scandinavian approach was seen as standing in opposition to the so-called sociotechnical approach, a functional approach in which social and technical systems were understood as being interdependent. By contrast, in Ehn's view workers should be able to participate directly in the development of computer systems.

CRITIQUE OF TECHNOLOGY. This tradition evolved from a combination of philosophical and sociological approaches. In Norway, Arne Næss developed his ecophilosophy, which was concerned, among other things, with the inability of engineers to take into consideration the wholeness of humankind and nature in which they were situated (Næss 1976). Sigmund Kvaløy (1976) developed a critique of the complexity of industrialism. The sociologist Dag Østerberg (1974) was concerned with the way in which technology could be understood as materialized social relations interacting with human activity.

In Denmark, Hans Siggard Jensen and Ole Skovsmose published a critique of technology in which they argued for a nonteleological or deontological ethical approach to technology (Jensen and Skovmose 1986). They positioned themselves in relation to the work of the philosophers Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) and Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929). Anker Brink Lund, Robin Cheesman, and Oluf Danielsen published a book in which they criticized technocratic approaches, particularly in the area of electronic media, and pointed to possibilities for a more democratic model of technological change (Lund et al. 1981).

Tarja Cronberg (1987) has developed a distinct approach to technology that focuses on the relationship of technology and everyday life. Cronberg came to see Danish social experiments with technology as a kind of laboratory for dialogue and research inspired by phenomenological approaches and critical theories of communication (Habermas 1984).

In Sweden, Andrew Jamison and Aant Elzinga have tried to work out historical perspectives on science and technology policy. They also stress the impact of culture (Elzinga and Jamison 1981). Jamison (1982) has been interested in the concept of "national styles" in an attempt to determine how national culture plays a formative role in relation to science and technology; this is implicitly a deontological approach.

The two initial traditions of working life science and technology critique have been conducted in various ways in small scholarly communities. In computer science the tradition of working life science has involved differing understandings of computer design and human-computer interactions. The journal Computer Supported Cooperative Work has been important in this work. An influential semiethical orientation in Scandinavian computer design is "activity theory," which is present in the work of the Danish working life scientist Susanne Bødker. Technology is seen as a tool that mediates between an individual and a social object or social role in an organization. For this relationship to become meaningful, it is necessary to design and integrate computer programs in an artful way. In Finland, this tradition of activity theory has become a very important contribution to work development research through the work of Yrjö Engeström (Engeström et al. 1999) and his Centre for Activity Theory and Developmental Work Research at the University of Helsinki.

A critique of technology seems not to have developed in a systematic way in Scandinavian philosophy. Some works have been published, but they have not led to the development of distinct philosophical traditions. At the Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy in the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark some scholars have developed the notion of "ethical budgets" and values-driven management for firms, which seems to be related to technology and ethics (Ole Thyssen 1997), and other philosophical contributions in the areas of ethics, innovation, and technology have been produced.

In Finland, a tradition of engineering ethics and responsibility of scientists has developed through such organizations as the Finish nongovernmental organization Technology for Life, and the Association of Swedish-Speaking Engineers in Finland, which has created a code of ethics for its members. Attempts are here made to sustain civil courage and find ways for engineers to demonstrate loyalty to third party (the future, the nature, humankind) rather than merely to business or within professions. Engineering ethics is taught in some engineering schools and technical universities in the Scandinavian countries even though these courses are not, or at most are seldom, compulsory. At the Helsinki University of Technology, a one-year course has been created with the help of Technology for Life.

Science, Technology, and Society Studies

A small tradition of science and technology studies (STS) has developed primarily in the three Scandinavian countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden). It has, in parallel with working life science, attempted to focus more on the development of than on the impact of technology. In Norway two STS institutions have been created that serve as examples of this work.

One is the Center for Technology and Human Values (now the Centre for Technology, Innovation and Culture), which was headed by Francis Sejersted in the period 1988–1998. Sejerstedt (1993) examined how a special form of capitalism has developed in Norway that is anchored in democratic, egalitarian, and local values in contrast to Chandler's (1990) notions of corporate and competitive capitalism in Germany and United States. Other researchers at this institution have shown how the transfer of technology to Norway as well as innovation processes can be seen as being intertwined with regional social structures and local values, leading to special forms of localized innovation (Wicken 1998).

A second STS institution is at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, headed by Knut H. Sørensen. In his research Sørensen has been occupied with studying what he calls the domestication and cultural appropriation of technology in everyday life, which may be seen as part of a deontological, nonteleological tradition (Lie and Sørensen 1996, Sørensen 1994, Andersen and Sørensen 1992).

In Sweden several STS units have been created, such as Tema T in Linköping and Science and Technology Studies at Göteborg University. Those groups conduct research on various aspects of technology and ethics, such as the role of expertise, technology in everyday life, technology and gender, technology and identity, technology and large technological systems, and public engagements with science.

These institutions focus largely on technology development rather than the consequences of technology, and in terms of ethics they may be seen to underline mostly a deontological approach in which social values come first and technology comes second.

In Denmark and later in Norway a tradition of technology assessment has developed. The most important contribution in this field is probably the Danish "consensus conference," which involves laypeople in the ethical assessment of technology. The laypeople are appointed much as a jury is appointed in a court. They question experts during a three-day session. Afterward they withdraw and formulate a verdict in the form of a consensus report. This approach can be associated with a nonteleological or deontological approach to ethics and technology.

Ethics of Science

In Scandinavia debates on the ethics of science have involved research on both ethics in technology and bioethics research. However, only with the establishment of specific committees for the ethics of science has this become an integrated part of work on the ethics of technology.

In Denmark the ethics of science was prominently present in the medical research community, which had to deal with serious problems with scientific fraud. The central committee on the ethics of science was influential in resolving problems among scientists with regard to this issue.

In 1998 the Danish Committee on Scientific Fraud and Integrity in Science (Udvalgene Vedrørende Videnskabelig Redelighed) was established as a subcommittee to the national committee for medical research. This committee formulated a number of rules for the ethics of science and publication ethics. The committee was allowed to process individual complaints against scientists (Rendtorff 2003, p. 63).

In this context, an intense debate about the ethics of science emerged as a reaction to the work of the political scientist Bjørn Lomborg (2002), director of a newly established Institute for Assessment of Environmental Protection. Lomborg had argued that most of the environmental sciences had been too pessimistic with regard to their conceptions of the dangers of an environmental crisis. Lomborg's work was brought to the committee in 2002 by a number of scientists who complained that Lomborg was guilty on scientific fraud because they did not believe in his methods and research results. It was argued that Lomborg did not work with a satisfactory scientific method. Lomborg had illustrated his argument with statistical material, and many ecological scientists thought that this constituted scientific fraud because he used statistical material to illustrate arguments that, according to the ecologists, could not be defended on those grounds. Lomborg's opponents argued that Lomborg's book could not be regarded as science, but rather as a contribution to the public debate. Moreover, it was argued that Lomborg as a social scientist did not have sufficient knowledge, which led to incorrect and hasty conclusions. The Committee on Scientific Rraud and Integrity investigated the issue, based on dialogue with international experts, and in spring 2003 (Rendtorff 2003, p. 9–10) Lomborg was judged by the committee to have committed not subjective but objective scientific fraud; according to the committee, he did not understand his research subject. This led to a violent debate about environmental technology in Denmark, and after that time the ethics of science became a very widely discussed subject.

In January 2004 the Ministery for Research of the Danish liberal-conservative government intervened. They came up with a very critical assessment of the decision in the Lomborg case. However, the Ministery wanted to protect people who were charged of scientific fraud; it therefore did not accept the decision of the Committee for Scientific Fraud in the Lomborg case. So Lomborg, in the end, was not convicted of scientific fraud and the official inquiry ended in January 2002. But even though the case of Lomborg did not get a clear closing and decision about whether it really was a case of scientific fraud, it illustrates many of the basic dilemmas of the ethics of science in Scandinavian countries: problems of the definition of scientific fraud and the integration of the public in scientific debates.


SEE ALSO Bioethics;Environmental Ethics;Kierkegaard, Søren;Marxism;Science, Technology, and Society Studies;von Wright, Georg Henrik.


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